Formal But Not Yet Safe

August 28th, 2012

In 2009, SVTC traveled to India to work with Chintan, a group in Delhi working on the electronic waste (e-waste) issue. Together we produced the film, Citizens at Risk. In the following blog series we will be updating you on the progress of the work to work with informal recyclers to improve working conditions and legalize their operations. Below is a blog authored by Bharati Chaturvedi, Executive Director, of Chintan.

Apple products are poisoning workers who make them. This is well known, thanks to a long campaign by activists. Recently, Apple accepted this too and promised to remedy this.

That’s good news. Ensuring worker safety is an important step towards cleaner electronics. But back here in India, it is workers at the other end of a product’s life cycle that we should worry about-at the end of disposal.  Informal waste collectors and dismantlers handle over 90% of India’s e-waste. Yet, their work is not clean. They work in the heat, the monsoon and in the icy cold winter, under appalling conditions. Experience tells us that even when they become formal, by forming associations or companies, their safety and health may still be compromised, unless producers themselves shift to clean production.

Let me explain. When you form a company or an association, you can apply for permits to be an e-waste collector. When you get this permit, which can take up to a year and many indirect costs, you can go out and collect electronic waste. What then?

For most informal sector actors, collection and selling e-waste to other dismantlers is still the best option. Dismantling requires more investment in training, skilled workers already familiar with dismantling, additional equipment and tools etc. This is difficult to procure even if you are organized. What is even harder is that many bigger cities are unwilling to give permits to set up more dismantling units,  because they see dismantling electronics as a highly toxic enterprise because of what’s inside the old computers, phones, T.Vs and other electronics we trash. Delhi and its neighbouring city, NOIDA, are two cases in point. This trend is likely to expand to other bigger cities. Unfortunately, they have a point-electronics do have toxics inside them.  And while dismantling is not a toxic process, and does not burn or extract any metals, it can still lead to some toxic releases. If monitors break, for example. Or when they use blow torches, operating at high temperatures, to remove smaller components from mother boards.

This means that workers from the informal sector cannot value add and earn the most money from the e-waste they collect because the manufacturers have pumped them up with dangerous chemicals and this has the authorities very wary about dismantling except by very capital intensive plants. This is worrying for two reasons. First, that poor-and inconsiderate- design reduces the legal earning for such workers. Second, that this acts as a disincentive for workers who are currently dismantling to actually formalize, because they will have to change their line of business to collection, where their core skills will be unused. They may even experience a reduction in incomes. Such a disincentive is bad for them and bad for the environment. If they continue to dismantle, they bear the brunt of the toxics in electronics. If they expand their business, as many of them hope to do, collection will only be a means of vertical integration and to secure their dismantling  businesses. It will be peripheral. For most, real expansion means adding value and increasing incomes from opportunities in extraction-even if it is illegal. Again, they will end up exposing themselves and other workers to dioxins, lead and acid fumes.

The new rules on e-waste in India, the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011,  mandate toxics reduction. Despite the occasional criticism of these, they are a first step to making electronic waste handling fair on the workers. More important is that producers of electronics clean up the insides of their products. Apple has taken a step, although it has a long way to go. The others must take their first step soon. It’s time to stop letting the workers at either end of the product chain to take in the poisons from our hyper-connected, comfortable life-styles.